BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hundreds of U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers have launched new raids against insurgent strongholds in a volatile Sunni province, officials said Saturday.
Iraqi soldiers and Marines began the operation on Thursday with raids in the village of Zaidan (search), 20 miles southeast of Fallujah, the military said. So far, 22 suspected insurgents had been detained.
Fallujah, a western Anbar province city 40 miles west of Baghdad, was a major insurgent bastion until U.S. forces overran the city in November.
The military did not announce the offensive earlier because commanders did not want to tip off insurgents. The campaign includes 500 Marines from the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team-8, stationed in Okinawa, Japan, the military said.
Also on Saturday, masked gunmen wounded Yahya al-Haidari, a local chief of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (search), as he drove in Mosul, hospital officials said.
Al-Haidari is a provincial chief in Iraq's largest Shiite Muslim group. Sunni Arab insurgents have been targeting Shiites, who dominate Iraq's government.
The head of Iraq's karate association, meanwhile, was kidnapped south of Baghdad, sports officials said Saturday. Ali Shakir (search) was abducted Thursday in Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, said Ahmed Hashim, an Iraq Olympic committee official.
It was not clear why Shakir was taken. Hundreds of Iraqis have been abducted during the last two years — some by insurgents for political and sectarian reasons and some by criminal gangs for ransom.
His abduction came two days after a Web site claimed that al-Qaida in Iraq had killed Egyptian envoy Ihab al-Sherif, who was seized by up to eight gunmen on a street in western Baghdad last weekend.
On Saturday, Egypt demanded that Iraq explain remarks made by its government spokesman Laith Kubba that al-Sherif was likely on his way to meet with insurgents when he was abducted.
It has been reported that al-Sherif was kidnapped while buying a newspaper in Baghdad a week ago and Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for killing Egypt's top envoy to the country. The claim had not been independently verified and there has been no photographic evidence proving his death.
Al-Sherif's abduction and attacks against Pakistani and Bahraini envoys have sent shockwaves through the diplomatic community in Iraq and raised concerns about a possible exodus of diplomats, especially Arab delegations. But the king of neighboring Jordan said the country would not bow to fears.
Jordan will send its ambassador to Iraq "sooner rather than later," King Abdullah II said in a CNN interview aired Saturday. "We are not going to allow again these limited extremists that are trying to destabilize the future of Iraq to have any effect," he said.
Jordan, a moderate Arab state and a close U.S. ally, has previously said it will return its ambassador to Baghdad, but Abdullah's confirmation was Amman's first since al-Sherif's disappearance.
Egyptian and Iraqi officials said Egypt would temporarily close its mission in Iraq and recall its staff.
Pakistan's Ambassador Mohammed Younis Khan left the country Wednesday after his convoy was fired on in a kidnap attempt. Bahrain's top envoy, Hassan Malallah al-Ansari, was expected to leave soon after he was slightly wounded in a separate attempt.
In London, The Mail on Sunday reported that British Defense Secretary John Reid drafted a secret paper for Prime Minister Tony Blair outlining how most of the country's 8,500 troops could be sent home from Iraq within three months, with the rest by the end of the year. The document also said the U.S. was looking to cut back its own troop levels to 66,000, down from the 135,000 there now.
But in a statement released by Britain Defense Ministry, Reid said the document was one of several periodic updates examining possible scenarios for the war in Iraq.
"We have made it absolutely plain that we will stay in Iraq for as long as is needed," Reid said. "No decisions on the future force posture of UK forces have been taken."
South of Baghdad, meanwhile, pamphlets were slipped under doors of 22 Shiite families warning them to flee the area or face decapitation. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the fliers on Saturday.
The pamphlets were signed by the "Mujahedeen Brigades" and distributed in the religiously mixed town of Youssifiyah. They accused the families of links to the militia of the Shiite Supreme Council.
Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraq until Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, boycotted January elections and are believed to make up the core of an insurgency that has killed more than 1,475 people since the Shiite-led government took office on April 28.
Elsewhere, a remote-controlled Predator drone conducted a strike Friday against militants near Qaim, an Anbar province town on the Syrian border, the U.S. military said. The Predator fired a missile at a truck carrying rocket-propelled grenades and suspected insurgents.
Two insurgents were killed, said Marine 1st Lt. Pamela Marshall, a spokeswoman.